Rituals and Worship

Sacred Space

Several sorts of sacred space coexist in Chan and Zen. There are the sacred spaces that are identified as such by virtue of a perception of the presence of the sacred, spaces that are rendered sacred by ritual, and a more generalized sense of space itself as a manifestation of the sacred. None of these types of sacred space is unique to Chan or Zen, but the last of these, space as a manifestation of the sacred, is the type most often associated with the tradition.

The first kind of sacred space derives from Shinto, and quite likely from pre-Shinto indigenous traditions in Japan. A place is considered to be sacred if a deity has shown itself there; thus, Shinto temples were believed to have been built where kami had appeared to humans. Similarly, in ancient China places were deemed sacred due to a non-human presence, as indicated by folk tales of supernatural creatures that had appeared in or occupied a particular spot.

In both cases, the deity or superhuman creature and the natural spot it occupied were, in a sense, considered to be one and the same—that is, natural elements such as rivers, trees, or mountains, for example, were personified, and as such, were considered divinities. In both China and Japan, Chan or Zen temples were sometimes built on locations that had a pre-established identity as sacred spaces.

The second kind of sacred space is an evolution of the first; it is a space that is made sacred by ritual. For example, the area surrounding a spot where a deity, a divine presence, or something supernatural had appeared might become a pilgrimage site, or the area surrounding the site of a sacred event or appearance might be structured as a mandala, which a visitor might walk around according to a prescribed pattern that reproduced the shape of the mandala.

According to the same process, all ritual activities in Buddhism can be considered to evoke the sacred, inviting a sacred presence and/or creating a sacred space. Another way to view this second kind of sacred space is that it changes a particular and specific experience of the sacred into something more abstract, and it universalizes what was originally a local tradition.

That process is brought to fruition in the third type of sacred space. At the same time, however, Zen and Chan developed their own localized sacred spaces, revolving around important events in the tradition itself. Thus, for example, the rock where Huineng was said to have left to his pursuer the bowl and robe signifying his succession as sixth patriarch became a sacred space, as did the wall at which Bodhidharma was said to have gazed in intensive meditation.

While grounded in Indian Buddhist philosophy, and thus not unique to either Zen or Chan, the third type of sacred space has come to be associated with this tradition in particular. Because of the teaching that all things have Buddha-nature, all activities, no matter how mundane, can take on the characteristic of ritual and convey sacrality. In a sense, then, all space becomes sacred space, including the space inside and outside of each individual. One could say that this kind of sacred space exists as a constant, and one could also say that the sacrality of all of space is revealed when one has the realization that everything has Buddha-nature.

No longer an experience of an encounter with a particular manifestation of the divine, the third type of sacred space is fully abstract and universal. Intense and profound encounters with local deities give way to a pervading sense of the calm and harmonious unity of all existence. At the same time, the potential power of local deities to control human existence is also neutralized by this process of abstraction.

In the actual practice of Zen and Chan, one type of sacred space does not replace the other. Individuals can and do experience all three kinds of sacred space, and a temple complex will commemorate them all as well—including monuments to local spirits, statues of deities to which people burn incense and leave gifts of food or flowers, pilgrimage sites or mandalas to traverse, and meditation halls and work areas where monks practice the universality of the experience of the sacred.

Study Questions:
1.     What are the varying ways in which sacred space is conceived? Provide examples for each ideology.
2.     How is sacred space associated with Zen?
3.     Can the conceptions of sacred space be transmuted into each other? Why or why not?

Back to Religion Library